By S. Clayton Moore
Gerald Freeman has a love of automobiles and aviation that he has developed over a lifetime. His adventures have taken him from the streets of London, where he saw British Spitfires battling it out with the Luftwaffe overhead, to the auto plants of the Motor City, where old-fashioned American know-how created some of the finest cars ever driven.
He has been led, late in life, to use his considerable artistic talents to create vibrant paintings of days past. Starting just eight years ago, he began creating dramatic works of art like our cover painting, “Who Needs Wings?” depicting a historical race between a Brescia Bugatti and a de Havilland biplane. Today, the 70-year-old artist is having a renaissance as one of the most popular and prolific painters in his genre.
“I’m actually quite fascinated with the early days of aviation,” Freeman explained. “Some of my paintings are based on photographs, where I’m trying to recreate the scene, and others are based on real events where I’m trying to capture my own perspective on the scene while keeping it realistic, in a sense.”
Freeman was born in London, where he became a witness to the dramatic events of World War II. He remembers being chased down by a U.S. spotter plane as he piloted a dinghy down the River Thames, and waving to Spitfires as they headed for France. His early friendships were with pilots flying P-38 Lockheed Lightnings in a reconnaissance squadron. Most than any other event, Freeman recalls the Battle of Britain.
“I’ve always held back doing any paintings about the Battle of Britain because I feel such strong emotions about it,” he admitted. “I remember the trails in the sky over London and standing in the street with my mother, seeing the planes dogfighting overhead. Those pilots were our heroes.”
He ended up in the Royal Air Force himself following the war, working in a drafting office drawing radar trucks and other military equipment. He spent many weekends racing his second car, a rebuilt Austin Seven race car, back to the base from his hometown pub.
Following his service, he started his own design studio, Artra Studio, Ltd., which had 10 employees and clients like Kodak and Shell Oil. It dissolved when England began to struggle with the common market in the early 1960s and Freeman began to think about new horizons.
“One night my friend John and I were joking around and watching the television program ‘Route 66’,” Freeman recalled. “I jokingly said, ‘Why don’t we take your Austin Healy and go to America, journey around the country?’ It rang a bell with John and he turned up the next day with a big pile of leaflets from the American Embassy.”
Freeman joined his friend in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve, 1963, and they soon found themselves with lots of company when six other friends from the pub came over as well.
“We had our own little British invasion,” Freeman laughed. “Other friends started coming over, so we ended up with quite a group in San Francisco.”
Freeman had a number of interesting assignments in San Francisco, where his first job with Kaiser Steel Company found him struggling to finish an overnight assignment through an earthquake. He also designed a hydrofoil for FMC Corporation, a military contractor, which was later built to his specifications. He worked briefly for legendary helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller.
“He was a terribly bright young man,” Freeman said of Hiller. “He was only 35 years old and had built his own helicopters and formed his own company. It was quite a fun job. One of my projects was doing a big cutaway drawing of a helicopter used in one of the James Bond movies.”
After a series of misadventures that took him back to England briefly and then to Canada and New York, he eventually found himself in Motor City, USA.
“I got in at the Greyhound station in Detroit about 5 a.m. one very cold morning,” Freeman remembered. “A job shop set me up at Buick Motors and I was making so much money that in a few weeks I had a 1964 Tri-Power Pontiac GTO. I got seduced into staying.”
He has been in the Detroit area ever since. Along with odd sidelines, like developing the art for a series of historical dioramas to accompany a set of Tonka Toys, he kept busy with work for all the major automotive companies and parts suppliers in the area until he retired from technical work eight years ago.
Since that time, he has built up quite a following by painting planes, boats and automobiles in a unique style that not only captures the distinctiveness of each vehicle but also places them in a setting and time of Freeman’s choosing.
“I think people like my work because I like doing the scenery as much as painting the car itself,” he said.
Each of his energetic paintings tells a story. “Ready For D-Day 1944,” painted for the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, depicts the strange wartime dichotomy of the English countryside as an MK V Spitfire and two P-51 Mustangs burst over a pastoral field where a Silver Ghost, also powered by a Rolls-Royce engine, has come to rest.
“Who Needs Wings?” was inspired by motor racing pioneer Raymond Mays, who set up the race on our cover as a publicity stunt in 1922. Another aviation painting, “The Air Race,” is set in 1913, and commemorates automobiles of the brass era and the excitement of seeing the early aviators.
“I try to live the experience in time by walking into the painting, experiencing the moment, and feeling the depth produced by the colors, shadows and perspective,” Freeman said of his technique. “The lighting of the subject and the colors and perspective are all very important to me.”
Although he wants to add more aviation-related works to his portfolio, the bulk of Freeman’s work is represented by his dramatic paintings of race cars and antique automobiles. Sometimes they are dramatic, as in “The Flying Mantuan,” depicting racer Tazio Nuvolari speeding in an Alfa Romeo during a 1936 race in Milan. That painting became the poster art for the 2005 Meadow Brook Concorso D’Italia, one of the most renowned automotive events in America.
“I love to capture the tremendous speed, noise and power of the old race cars on canvas—the smoke from the engine, the cheering crowds by the side of the track, the screech of tires throwing up rocks and dust,” Freeman explained. “I also like my work to depict cars gently cruising the country lanes or parked statuesquely. One can sense the ancient grace of these beauties, cherished and nurtured by their owners.”
He often uses photographs and film footage of both real historical events as well as contemporary aircraft and automobiles to aid him in his work and has developed a reputation for researching his subjects extensively. His repertoire encompasses both antique and more modern classic cars. They range from “Battle of the Titans,” depicting the racers at Donington Park in 1937, to “Yellow GT40,” showing a Ford GT40 Mk IV making the rounds at Le Mans in 1967.
Freeman works in both oil and acrylic on canvas, giving each painting not only a sense of majesty but also an almost three-dimensional effect that brings out details like the ruts in a road. He loves the feel of oil but has recently moved to more acrylic work due to increased demand. In addition to selling work at major art and automobile events around the country, he also takes commissions, painting subjects like the new Bentley Continental for collectors and enthusiasts.
“I like to paint for myself but I find myself doing quite a lot of commissions,” he said. “But, when I do take them, I like to have quite a lot of influence into how the subject is presented and what its setting is.”
The artist has won several awards and his work has been featured in posters for several automobiles shows including the Glenmoor Gathering and the Pierce Arrow Society. He has been a five-time award winner at the Meadow Brook Concours D’Elegance, receiving an Award of Excellence in 2004, sponsored by Chrysler, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation. His work has appeared in Class & Sports Car magazine, Automobile Quarterly and Automobile magazine.
He has several ideas for new paintings that he intends to pursue soon, building into each his passion for the great machines of the last century.
“Ever since I was a young boy, drawing cars and planes has been kind of an obsession for me,” Freeman proclaimed. “There is real magic to the eclectic collections of cars and people that attend the shows.”
Gerald Freeman has originals paintings as well as prints on canvas available for sale and also takes commissions on paintings. He can be reached at 248-446-0857 or by mail at 828 Fox Court, South Lyon, Mich. 48178.